Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas Eve: An Excellent Day of Food and Wine

There was quite a lot happening in my kitchen on Christmas Eve. For me, holidays are really just an excuse to make something special. It's also a great excuse to have wine with lunch and dinner and the cooking that goes on in between. I knew that I was going to be doing quite a bit of cooking, but I didn't really want any of it to be too involved.

What could be easier than cracked Dungeness crab? I mean, you can buy it already cooked, cleaned and cracked which is exactly what I did. I made a quick sauce with butter, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic pounded into a paste with a bit of salt. The crab gets a bit of a baste before going into a hot (450F) oven for 15-20min., and a bit more sauce when it comes out. You will want to wait a few minutes for the crab to cool since you will be eating with your hands.

This time is the perfect opportunity to whip up a nice crunchy salad to go alongside the crab. I fortunately had some stuff already prepped, left over from catering the Holiday Party at my day job. I sliced some fennel and radishes with a mandoline, sliced some belgian endive and treviso, and tossed in some blanched green beans. The salad was tossed with a lemon truffle vinaigrette from the Balthazar Cookbook. After plating the salad, I garnished it with some breadcrumbs and avocado slices. This is a lovely salad. The creamy avocado is a great counterpoint to the crunchy vegetables and breadcrumbs. I really love the current trend of using breadcrumbs as a garnish instead of croutons. You can get crunchy bits in each bite instead of struggling to spear a crouton.

For the Lemon Truffle Vinaigrette
(adapted from The Balthazar Cookbook)

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup lemon juice from about 2 lemons
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white truffle oil

In a medium bowl combine the salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Whisk in the olive and truffle oils. Store covered in the refrigerator for up to 1 week. Actually, I just put all of the ingredients in a jar, like a left over honey or jam jar, and shake until well emulsified.

I had been wanting an excuse to make the braised duck leg dish from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, and Christmas Eve dinner seemed to be the perfect excuse. The duck legs are braised with banyuls which is a fortified wine from the South of France made from Grenache grapes. The wine is mildly sweet with notes of dried fruit and mocha with a hint of peppery spice. This wine was great on its own and I just knew it would reduce into a fabulous savory sauce with just enough sweetness to complement the accompanying dish, turnip-parsnip gratin with prunes. And to make it really perfect, we opened a bottle of Pinotage that we brought back from South Africa last year. The meal was perfect and turned out just as I had tasted it in my mind.

Duck Braised in Banyuls
(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
serves 6

6 large duck legs
1 tablespoon thyme leaves, plus 6 sprigs
Zest of 1 orange
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 1/2 cup diced onion
1/2 cup diced fennel
1/2 cup diced carrot
1 bay leaf
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 cups Banyuls
3-4 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup parsley

Trim the excess fat from the duck legs. Season with the thyme leaves, orange zest and pepper. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat oven to 325F. Take the duck out of the refrigerator 45 minutes before cooking. After 15 minutes, season the legs with salt.

Heat a large braising pan over high heat for 2 minutes. Swirl in the olive oil and wait 1 minute. Place the duck legs in the pan, skin side down, and cook 8-10 minutes, until the skin is deep golden brown and crispy. You may need to brown the duck in batches. Turn the legs over, reduce the heat to medium and cook 2 minutes on the other side.

Remove the duck to a plate. Discard all but a couple of tablespoons of fat from the pan. Add the onion, fennel, carrot, thyme sprigs, bay leaf, and a pinch of pepper. Cook about 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring often with a wooden spoon to scape up all the crusty bits.

When the vegetables are nicely browned and caramelized, add the balsamic vinegar and Banyuls. Turn the heat up to high, bring the liquid to a boil, and cook 6-8 minutes, until it has reduced by half. Add 3 cups stock and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down to low and simmer 5 minutes.
Add the duck back to the pan with the skin side up. The liquid should not quite cover the duck (add more stock if necessary). Cover the pan with a tight fitting lid and braise in the oven about 2 1/2 hours, until the duck is very tender but not quite falling off the bone. Remove pan from oven.

Turn the oven up to 400F.

Transfer the duck to a baking sheet and return to the oven to crisp the skin, 10-15 minutes.

Strain the broth into a saucepan, pressing down on the vegetables. Skim the top layer of fat from the sauce. If necessary, reduce the broth over medium high heat about 5 minutes to thicken slightly. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Serve with the turnip-parsnip gratin with prunes and spoon the sauce around. Scatter the parsley leaves over the top.

Turnip-Parsnip Gratin with Prunes
(adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)
serves 6

1 1/2 pounds turnips, peeled
1 1/2 pounds parsnips, peeled
about 2 cups heavy cream
1 tablespoon thyme leaves
1/3 pound pitted prunes, quartered
salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 350F.

Use a mandoline to slice the turnips and parsnips into 1/16 inch thick rounds and put them into two separate bowls.

Pour 1/2 cup cream onto the bottom of a 9x9 inch gratin dish. Place on layer of turnips on the bottom of the dish. Season with 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper. Scatter a third of the prunes on top. Arrange a layer of parsnips over the turnips and prunes. Press the parsnips down with your fingers, letting the cream soak up through the layers. This will ensure that the cream is evenly distributed and coats the vegetables well. Drizzle with 1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pinch of pepper and 1 teaspoon thyme.

Arrange another layer of turnips and drizzle another 1/4 cup cream over them. Season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, pinch of pepper and 1 teaspoon thyme. Scatter a third of the prunes on top and continue with another layer of parsnips. Drizzle on 1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt and a pinch of pepper. Press the vegetables down with your fingers, allowing the cream to come up through the layers and coat the vegetables evenly.

Finish the gratin with one more layer, this time of both parsnip and turnip slices, arranging this layer nicely, this will be the top of your gratin. Scatter the remaining prunes over the top. Drizzle with 1/4-1/2 cup cream and season with 1/4 teaspoon salt, freshly ground black pepper and the remaining teaspoon thyme. Press the grain down with your finger again. The cream should cover the vegetables but not be too soupy. Add more cream if the gratin seems dry.

Cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake about 1 1/2 hours, until the vegetables are tender when pierced. Remove from the oven and carefully uncover. Turn the oven to 425F and return the gratin to the oven. Cook another 15-20 minutes, until the top is nice and golden brown.

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